BOSTON (CBS) – Peter Chiarelli once defiantly snapped back at this writer’s question about the ability to “flip the switch” and go from playing mediocre hockey to playing like a team that was about to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
It was a press conference either before the Eastern Conference finals or the Stanley Cup finals last season, and it was quite obvious that the Bruins general manager wasn’t as shocked at his team’s ability to look like world beaters in the postseason after sleepwalking through the regular season as the writers that cover his team.
“There’s no switch,” he said like a scolding school teacher.
I still beg to differ.
This season the Bruins have taken the regular season more seriously, as evidenced by their high post in the standings, where they’re battling the Pittsburgh Penguins point by point for Eastern Conference supremacy.
But the Bruins’ season has been less than perfect.
More often than last season, we’ve seen the Bruins “flip the switch” within games to help their cause when necessary en route to first place in the Atlantic Division.
They hardly played a full 60 minutes in any of their games during the first third of the season. Yet they kept on winning and rising in the standings until they hit the top.
There was certainly some “Stanley Cup runner-up” hangover mixed in there with the steady stream of injuries, including a couple of major hits to their second-most-important offseason acquisition Loui Eriksson.
Since about December the Bruins have produced fuller efforts and kept on winning.
Now, instead of struggling through an entire game and gutting out a victory, the Bruins are quicker to rebound after tough periods and then play so well you forget that they were ever in danger of not earning two points.
That’s right, they flip the switch period to period, and sometimes even within a period.
The Bruins did it again on Wednesday, as they were outshot 14-6 in the first period against Montreal. The score, however, was 0-0 after twenty minutes. Did anyone think the Bruins were going to win in a laugher after the period?
Well, a student of very recent Bruins history might’ve at least guessed Boston was going to prevail. But it would’ve been a long shot to say the Bruins would win 4-1 at the Bell Centre.
Time and again, the Bruins have followed the same script as Wednesday.
They were outshot 7-0 at the start of their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning last Saturday. But the score was 0-0 after one period. Boston then fell behind 2-0. It didn’t matter, as the Bruins came back for a 3-2 win.
On March 2 in New York, the Bruins spotted the Rangers a 20-9 first period shots advantage. A late first period goal, however, sent the Bruins to the locker room in a 1-1 tie en route to a commanding 6-3 victory.
The way I see it, there are three major reasons the Bruins have been able to limit their patches of inconsistency and turn into a team that wins on a consistent basis.
It begins with Tuukka Rask in net. The Finn has been asked to keep the Bruins in striking distance often, like he did in stopping two first-period breakaways by the Canadiens on Wednesday, and more often than not he’s answered the call.
The worries about the Bruins wearing him down early in the year were warranted. But the Bruins are still trying to figure out just how much the 27-year-old can withstand. He’s still in the top five in save percentage and in the league lead in shutouts.
The Bruins’ system, and the players’ trust in it, also lends itself to making sure the team never goes in Vancouver Canucks-style tailspin. So many of these players have been playing in this system for half a decade or more and there have only been little tweaks to the philosophy here and there.
The success rate over the past several years has established a faith that has prevented any thoughts players would have of revolting or freelancing when things aren’t going exactly as planned.
Of course, not everyone on this Bruins team has been a longtime resident of Boston. And that brings me to the last reason I think this Bruins team is so consistent.
Jarome Iginla and Eriksson, now that he’s healthy and finally playing the way the Bruins expected, have been perfect fits for this team. They’re not flashy, but they get the job done, they work hard every night and they have always worried more about fitting in than their personal acclaim.
Iginla has surpassed 20 goals, again, and has done everything asked of him, from scoring to killing penalties to being on the ice at the end of games to prevent tying goals. Iginla’s predecessor was famous for an ever-present grin and a tendency to be an invisible man for stretches of the regular season. Iginla smiles less, but never takes a night off.
Eriksson was slowed by two concussions. That type of serious injury just doesn’t lend itself to toughing it out in order to make one’s new team accept you. Symptom and rust-free now, we’re seeing Eriksson become the type of three-zone player the Bruins expected to get.
And best of all, Reilly Smith’s success with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron has allowed Eriksson to hit his stride on a third line (the Swede Emotions Line) with Carl Soderberg and Chris Kelly.
Since the Olympic break, that third line has given the Bruins their best third-line production since the days of Kelly, Rich Peverley and Michael Ryder.
I’d hate to break it to Chiarelli and all the folks that cash a Bruins paycheck. There is a switch to be flipped, and the Bruins did flip it after the regular season in 2013.
In 2014, they’ve just gotten better about flipping it quicker and keeping it in the on position for longer stretches of time.
By the playoffs, they may not have to lift a finger to play the way they want and get where they want to get.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.
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